By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today we’re looking up…way up… to the word ‘sublime’!
The basic meaning of the word “sublime” today is “very beautiful or good” or “lofty or elevated in thought, expression or manner”. But the word has a specific meaning in reference to art and poetry. In the 18th century, Edmund Burke wrote a philosophical treatise on aesthetics, thinking in particular of painting and the visual arts, especially how to appreciate and paint a landscape, and described two categories: the beautiful and the sublime, to which painter, writer on art, and headmaster William Gilpin later added a third category, the picturesque. The beautiful was aesthetically pleasing for its symmetry and regularity, like a carefully groomed formal garden or a symmetrical and harmonious neoclassical building; the picturesque was pleasing for its quaint and comforting irregularity, like the rolling hills of the countryside or a charming peasant’s cottage; whereas the sublime inspired awe and even terror due to its vastness and power, like a majestic mountain range or a medieval abbey half in ruins. These notions of the emotional responses to aesthetics were further developed by German philosopher Immanuel Kant.
As we’ll see, these categories and the imagery they evoked were crucially important to the romantic poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Byron, with their obsession with emotions and the sublime in nature, but to understand that, we’ll have to take a closer look at the word “sublime”, and the word “romantic” for that matter.
The word “sublime” comes into English from Latin sublimis which had a similar set of meanings: “high, lofty, or elevated”. The prefix sub- we normally think of as meaning “under” or “below” — think submarine, ‘under the water’. The second element of the word is either limen meaning “threshold” or “lintel”, or limus meaning “sidelong, askance, or sideways”, though the two words, limen and limus, may be related in any case, as a lintel (a word which itself comes from Latin limen through Old French) is the horizontal crossbeam above a door or window. So how does a word which seems to mean “under the threshold or lintel” come to mean ‘lofty or elevated’? Well, oddly enough the deeper meaning of sub- is “from below” or in other words “up or upwards”, and the word comes from a Proto-Indo-European root which also gives us English “up” and “over”, as well as sub- through Latin and hypo- through Greek. So etymologically speaking “sublime” means “up to the lintel” and thus as high as the top of a door — it evokes looking up, and so describes what you look up to.
But its metaphorical meaning was already evident in the Classical period, in authors like Quintilian who used the Latin word “sublimis” to describe elevated and grandiose language and style in rhetoric and poetry–in contrast to “humilis”, ‘earthy, plain, or low”. And later Longinus, thinking along the same lines, used the Greek word “hypsos” to describe good writing and its effects. Burke then picked up on this vocabulary to describe the concept that became so important to the Romantic poets.
Now, to understand the word ‘romantic’ itself, we have to again go back to Latin, in fact to the Romans themselves, since at the heart of the word ‘romantic’ is the name of the city Rome (which, by the way, probably comes from the previous name of the River Tiber in the non-Indo-European language Etruscan). From the place name Roma comes the adjective romanicus “of Rome”. The word for the language the Romans spoke, Latin, comes from the tribal name of a larger group in southern Italy, the Latins. In the early middle ages, when Latin had begun to branch off into the local dialects which eventually become a variety of European languages such as French, Italian, Spanish and so forth, languages we now call ‘romance’ because they come from what the Romans spoke, it became customary to refer to something written in one of these languages as romanice “in the local vernacular”, in contrast to something written in the more proper form of Latin still preserved as the language of the church, which would be designated as latine “in Latin”. In other words, ‘romanice’ referred to vulgar Latin after it had come under the influence of other local languages like the Germanic language of the Franks — the people whose name is the origin of the word French, by the way. It was a question of differentiating the newfangled way of speaking from the earlier so-called purer form of the language. Kids today, ruining the language with their medieval version of text-speak! And so the sorts of things those Old French poets were writing in their newfangled language also came to be known as ‘romances’, from the Old French word romanz — you know, stories about knights in shining armour rescuing damsels in distress from fire-breathing dragons—and from around the year 1300 the word passed into Middle English too. To this day, the literary genre that developed out of those medieval romances, the novel, is called a roman in French.
Later on, in the renaissance, there was another word that could be used to make this distinction and describe the local languages descended from Latin: romanesque, a term which later still came to refer specifically to the style of architecture of those peoples in the earlier part of the middle ages — one that was a mixture of Roman and non-Roman influences. The Roman Empire fell in part due to the attack and invasion of various Germanic barbarian tribes, such as the Goths and the Vandals; indeed that’s where we get the word vandal, commemorating those Germanic tribes that were supposedly to blame for putting an end to the cultural highpoint that was the classical world. After a few hundred years when things were on the rise again in western Europe, people began building larger stone buildings once more, replacing smaller timber constructions, and the architects copied stylistic elements from ancient Rome and Byzantium, in particular the rounded arches. We now call that ‘romanesque’ architecture — derived from the old Roman style, but part of the new medieval world of the 11th century or so, and thus not entirely Roman (just like ‘romanicus’ languages weren’t fully Roman or Latin). But from the 12th century onward a new style developed, which featured pointed arches and elongated proportions that were very different from the aesthetics and symmetries of the classical world. All this verticality was meant to direct one’s attention upward to God — those pointed arches are practically arrows. It’s a question of, literally, looking up (sound familiar?) And the later commentators from the 17th and 18th centuries, who were interested in returning to the aesthetics of the classical world (and so are now called neoclassicals), started to refer to that later medieval style as ‘gothic’. Remember the Vandals and the Goths who “destroyed” classical culture with their black nail polish and gloomy music—no, wait, sorry, wrong Goths! Well the neoclassicals didn’t think much of the medieval gothic cathedrals either, and the word ‘gothic’ came to describe the aesthetics of later medieval culture, which was thought of as barbaric. Then, in 1764 when writer Horace Walpole, the Dan Brown of his day, published The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story, so called because of its medieval setting, and it became a massive hit, spawning imitators like Ann Radcliffe of its creepy horror filled style, with or without the medieval setting (though she called them romances), a new genre was born: the gothic novel, forerunner of the modern horror genre—and the inspiration, eventually, for that black nail polish of the modern ‘goths’. And this brings us back to that sublime imagery of Edmund Burke, with its ability to evoke feelings of terror, so central to the gothic novel. Later on, Mary Shelley would take up the form and combine it with romanticism to produce her novel Frankenstein. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
That renewed interest in the gothic also led to a revival of gothic architecture in the 18th & 19th century, with new buildings built to look like they were medieval, like the British Houses of Parliament with designs by Augustus Pugin. And ironically, the interest in gothic ruins, a common element of romantic art and literature that was reacting against neoclassicism, nonetheless owes something to the 18th century focus on classical architecture. When the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, which had been destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, was rediscovered in the 18th century, its fame spread through the descriptions of art historian and archaeologist Johann Winckelmann, spurring on the neo-classical movement. But this ancient ruin also triggered theRomantic fascination with the vastness and passage of time, very sublime in its effect on the romantic imagination. And in the more literary realms, the interest in lost ancient languages and poetry led to Scotsman James Macpherson’s highly influential though largely forged Gaelic epic “the Ossian poem” in the 18th century, and the later much more credible work of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the 19th century to recover Germanic folktale, as well as the reconstruction of unwritten proto-languages such as Proto-Indo-European.
One of the trends at the heart of the gothic novel genre was a vogue for sentimentalism and the so-called literature of sensibility. The idea originally was that having a highly emotional and sympathetic response to your fellow humans—being, in an earlier meaning of the word, very sensible—would lead to good moral behaviour. That’s Adam Smith’s argument in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Yes, that Adam Smith — it’s strange that the same man who wrote the handbook for capitalism also wrote a philosophical work on feelings and sympathy—the original Emo! I can’t explain it either. But in the almost over-the-top sentimentality of many novels of the day, like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Fanny Burney’s Evelina, and gothic novels like those of Ann Radcliffe, with their long-suffering protagonists and highly emotional content, sensibility becomes an aim in itself. Later on, Jane Austen would satirise the sentimental and gothic novels in Northanger Abbey.
This vogue for sensibility is also at the heart of the romantic movement (yes, we’re finally getting back to them), which is all about giving expression to one’s emotions and individual point of view. Once again, it was largely a question of differentiating oneself from what went before. The neoclassical period was all about reason and rationality, which the romantics of the next generation rejected in favour of emotion as their guiding principle. And this movement became known as ‘romantic’ because of all those medieval associations of the word “romance” and its fantasy world of imagination — at least that’s how the romantics themselves saw it, though they didn’t actually call themselves ‘Romantics’ until the very end of the period, at least in Britain. The term did turn up a little earlier on the continent, in the works of commentators such as Madame de Stael, in French, and in German, the Schlegel brothers August (also de Stael’s sometime lover) and Friedrich (forerunner of Jacob Grimm in the study of Indo-European). And even better, the medieval aesthetic (under the term gothic) had already been seen as a contrast to the classical aesthetic with its ordered regularity. So it was perfect for the romantics, who were into including medieval themes and imagery in their work — and especially the image of ruined Gothic architecture. And not only were the romantics really into emotions and medieval fantasy, they were particularly moved by sublime imagery, whose vastness and grandeur made the individual observer feel small. No wonder then that when they looked up at a mountain like Mont Blanc or a building like Tintern Abbey they wrote poetry about it. Remember, the sublime and the gothic are all about looking up.
Of course romanticism was also a very sexist and classist construct. Emotionality in women was used to dismiss them as frivolous, whereas in the male poet it was a mark of true refinement. And the ability to contemplate the truth and enlightenment behind the sublime (something most easily done by those with leisure and the money for higher education) was considered a marker of moral and aesthetic superiority: the aristocratic Lord Byron would often tease the lower-class John Keats, and call him dismissively the “cockney poet”. Wordsworth’s ideal poet was, he said in his preface to the Lyrical Ballads, like an ordinary man except better in every way. Sound contradictory?
Today, of course, the word “romantic” is usually used to refer to a particular type of love and the feelings and actions associated with it. This somewhat different meaning only really became widespread in the 19th century, and the primary one in the 20th. It develops from the model of love displayed in those old medieval romances with knights pining away for inaccessible ladies, which scholars now refer to as courtly love, the kind of love appropriate for the courtly setting of knights and lords and princesses. Many of our modern romantic cliches, such as love at first sight and lovesickness, come from that medieval poetic tradition, modelled on the kind of idealized behaviour the romance hero displays toward his beloved lady in those old stories. The word “chivalry” too, which comes from the French word cheval meaning “horse” in reference to the mounted knight, has something of the same sense trajectory, going from the noble and idealized behaviour of the medieval knight (in battle and relations with his lord, not only in his involvement with women) to the watered down cliche of a man holding a door open for a woman in the 20th century. And no doubt this modern sense of “romantic” has also been influenced by the sentimentality of the sentimentalism movement and the emotionality of those Romantic poets of the 18th and 19th centuries respectively.
Heading back toward the word sublime: a related word, and now perhaps more familiar, is subliminal. Rather than coming from the word sublime itself, it actually seems to have been freshly coined from the same Latin roots in the late 19th century as a calque or loan translation of the German word unterschwellig, which also means “beneath the threshold”. The German Schwelle, by the way is cognate with English sill, as in window sill. This concept, unter der Schwelle des Bewusstseins “under the threshold of consciousness” was first used in a textbook on psychology by philosopher Johann Friedrich Herbart, who was influenced by and successor as professor at Königsberg to Immanuel Kant (who developed, as you may remember, the theory of aesthetics so important to the Romantics), and is now perhaps most known for his theories on pedagogy and education. As it happens, Herbart rubbed elbows with famous writer and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who, along with his less well known friend, yet another Johann, poet and philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, who was in part inspired by that old medieval poetry, (as well as by Macpherson’s Ossian forgery), and gothic architecture, and envisioned it as part of an ancient German national culture, helped to develop the Sturm und Drang German literary movement, which laid the foundation for what became the Romantic movement. So these architects of Romanticism took us all the way from the subliminal to the sublime!
Sublime’s origin in a word for an architectural feature nicely mirrors the ongoing parallels between cultural and aesthetic movements on the one hand and terms for architectural styles on the other, from romanesque and romantic to gothic to neoclassical; and the ongoing lesson of this story is that new generations and cultural movements tend to reject what came just before them, in a neverending quest to keep things looking up.
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